UK EU campaigners, choose your words wisely

Posted on May 11, 2015


We are about to embark on a referendum that will decide whether the UK stays in the EU or leaves. No doubt about it. But, what is the question we will face? Will it be “Yes, we should stay in the EU?” Or “No, we should not leave the EU?”

Same outcome. Different words.

This is the first battle that will be fought in a long war of words, but specifically, these words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, should be a battle that neither side should want to lose. Its outcome will determine who is fighting the cause of the positive campaign, and who the negative.

Right now, the SNP are riding the crest of a wave – no doubt for many reasons. One reason is their stunningly effective ‘Yes’ campaign in 2014. Who expected them to come so close? Of course, the substance of their argument mattered, but they also had one other powerful asset. The word ‘Yes’: It’s brimming with positivity and hopefulness.

Yes, the ‘No’ campaign did have its ‘Better Together’ campaign line, but they were always characterised in the media as the ‘No’ campaign. They got the negative word.

In 2012 and 2013 the Yes campaign’s support was dragging at 25 and 30% respectively. This was before the campaigns had been drawn up. Their campaigning made a mockery of that gap. How much of this was down to the words?

Perhaps they can. In the book ‘Words can change your brain’, the authors Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman posit research that suggest that positive words stimulate action far more than negative words. This is because positive words stimulate the frontal lobe in the brain, the same part of the brain that stimulates action. Think about it. Which 100 metre sprinter stands on the start line uttering ‘no, no, no’ and succeeds in winning the race?

But, here is where it gets interesting. EPJ Data analysed the common usage of words both positive and negative, and discovered that whilst there was a preference for positive words, it was the negative words that often carried deeper meanings when it comes to content. These fired off more thoughts.

Barbara Fredrickson conducted interesting experiments with her students, exposing certain groups to positive imagery and others to negative imagery. The results? Those in the positive groups were brimming with ideas. Those without were far less likely to contribute ideas. In short, the experiment made them less likely to be forthcoming. It turned them off.

Would Barack Obama’s 2008 “Yes, we can” campaign have been as effective had he chosen the slogan “No, we should not say we can’t”? I’m sure it would not.

So, whichever side of the argument ends up with the Yes word in their arsenal should think carefully. It may well stimulate action, but how can it stimulate thought? And those left with ‘No’, may well be able to make people think, but how do they get them out to vote?

The war of words is about to begin

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